Leo Tolstoy wrote three supersized novels. Two of them rank among the best known classics of
world literature, the third one is rarely read and mostly forgotten. Yet when
Resurrection was
published in 1899, it created a sensation and outsold
War and Peace and Anna Karenina. It
was as if “an angel were to take to novel-writing,” announced one critic in praise of the book.
“How all of us rejoiced,” proclaimed another admirer. The book found enthusiastic readers all
around the world—in Germany, twelve different translations were released soon after the work’s
release, and fifteen different editions appeared in France. But, despite the implications of the
novel’s name, this work was destined to sink from view, and never rise again.

Certainly
Resurrection has not lacked for defenders in more recent times. “Before I read this
book I didn't quite understand the Russian Revolution,” novelist
George Saunders has said in
response to
Resurrection. Brian Aldiss, who claimed to have read the book eight times, in
various translations, has called it the “greatest of all novels.”  But these are exceptions. More
typical is the assertion of R.F. Christian, an eminent scholar of Russian literature, who declared:
“No serious critic would deny that Tolstoy’s last novel is a vastly inferior work of art to the two
great novels which preceded it.”

Frankly, I’m not sure this book even counts as a novel. By this late stage in his life, Tolstoy had
given up the literary life for a new career as prophet and gadfly. Pilgrims flocked to his home
Yasnaya Polyana, located two hundred kilometers from Moscow, as though it were a religious
shrine, as many as thirty-five showing up in a single day—a far cry from Tolstoy’s life as a
eminent writer in the 1880s when maybe two or three visitors per week would break up the
routine of his reclusive ways. He even looked like a Biblical patriarch at this stage, and people
responded accordingly, seeking wisdom and spiritual advice from the guru.

Many changed their lives as a result of Tolstoy’s teachings. Some followers gave up eating meat
in emulation of the great writer. Others abstained from sexual relations or refused to serve in the
military. The Russian government viewed these developments with concern. They held back from
arresting Tolstoy for instigating subversive activities, but often took harsh measures against his
devotees. Yet this did little to curb his followers’ enthusiasm. (Even today,
two Tolstoyan
communities still operate in England, where one of his leading disciples Vladimir Grigoryevich
Chertkov lived in exile and aggressively proselytized.)

This new stage in Tolstoy’s evolution forced a change
in his approach to fiction. Perhaps the most astute
comment on Resurrection comes from an unsigned
review in
The Bookman from April 1900, which
suggested that this strange work “might have been
written by Zola in collaboration with the prophet Isaiah.”
That accurately captures the tone of this unusual
narrative, which at times seems to operate comfortably
within the formulas of the nineteenth century social
realist novel, and at other moments collapses into
feverish manifesto.

The plot is simple enough. The dissolute nobleman Nekhlyudov finds himself serving on a jury
where the defendant is a young woman, Maslova, he had seduced and abandoned years
before.  Through some legal mishaps and miscommunications, Maslova is convicted of a murder
she didn’t commit and is sentenced to hard labor in Siberia. Nekhlyudov blames himself for this
injustice, and indeed for the woman’s reduced state. He finds himself in a moral crisis, and
decides he must take extreme steps to atone for his guilt and rescue Maslova from her unfair
punishment.

Nekhlyudov had already appeared as a character in earlier Tolstoy works and, in the words of
critic George Steiner, “served the novelist as a kind of self-portrait whose traits he could alter as
his own experience deepened.” In old age, the moralizing Tolstoy regretted his predatory
relations with various women in his earlier years, and in particular his seduction of a
chambermaid in his family’s service, Agatha Mikhailovna Trubetskaya, who was subsequently
dismissed.  “I seduced her, she was sent away, and she perished,” the novelist later confessed
to his biographer Pavel Birtyukov.

This story could have been compressed into a novella, but then Tolstoy would have had to omit
all the parts he probably valued most in this book—his detailed programs for prison reform, land
reform, religious reform and other schemes for improving society. Here, at the final stage of his
career as an author, he had returned to the presiding role model of his youth, Rousseau—that
other writer who forced novels to do the work of philosophical treatises. As a young man, Tolstoy
boasted that he had read twenty volumes of Rousseau’s collected writings, and even wore a
medallion with the French thinker’s image on it. Now in his eighties, he aimed to write a kind of
updated Rousseauian narrative—projects driven in the case of both writers by a deeply-
ingrained (and oftentimes naïve) faith in the basic goodness of human nature, which was too
often forced into evil-doing by bad institutions and muddled ethical theories.

Tolstoy’s story, for all its polemic, is savage and
moving. But you could hardly have picked a
worse time to launch a book like this one on to
the world. Modernism was about to take over all
spheres of artistic expression, and Tolstoy was
heading back in the opposite direction—into the
early Middles Ages and a kind of theology akin
to that professed by the desert ascetics of early
Christianity. (He even concludes Resurrection
with long passages from the Gospel, making clear
to all and sundry the essentially religious roots of
his agenda for social uplift.) Yet just three years
after Tolstoy’s death, the Futurists would already
be denouncing him as a representative of all the
old decadent culture than needed to get tossed
overboard. And four years after that, the Russian
Revolution would show that you didn’t need the
Sermon on the Mount to abolish private property and remake society.

Any serious appraisal of Resurrection has to deal with one of the thorniest questions in literary
theory: is art undermined when it is turned into a blatant platform for an ideology?  This is the
same question that haunts Atlas Shrugged, Triumph of the Will, and all those forgotten novels of
socialist realism—to name just a few examples. This is a complex matter beyond the scope of
this assessment of Tolstoy’s last major literary work. Suffice it to say, characters easily turn into
hollow stick figures when forced to operate according to the dictates of a polemic. Yet issue-
driven fiction can also produce a masterpiece—as the diverse examples of George Orwell,
Charles Dickens, Kurt Vonnegut, and Ralph Ellison make clear. The key is that the story and
characters must possess a force and vitality that grab the reader’s attention over and above any
party platform. Characters cannot merely serve as spokespersons for the Ministry of Truth
(however defined); they need to convince us that they live and breathe, even if only within the
confines of the printed page.

Tolstoy achieves this often enough in
Resurrection to earn our respect. He may have decided
that his vocation was seer and prophet by this stage of his life, but he still remembered the
storyteller’s craft. Critic Irving Howe, himself something of a specialist in the intersection of art
and ideology, summed it up well in his assessment of Resurrection. “Reading aged Tolstoy stirs
the heart,” he wrote shortly before his death. “Tolstoy's moral passion becomes transformed into
something very much like the matter of art.”

There’s some quibbling here. Howe doesn’t admit that
Resurrection is a work of art, but rather
“very much like” one.  In other words, it is a liminal narrative, standing at the boundary line
between fiction and philosophy, realism and idealism, art and advocacy. It won’t ever be an easy
book to pigeonhole, and for every passage you admire, you will find another that will make you
want to argue instead. In that way, the book embodies Tolstoy himself, and all his paradoxes and
contradictions, more fully perhaps than his better-known masterworks.

But, in the final analysis, I would recommend this novel because of how deeply it draws us into
the side of Tolstoy that professors of literature rarely address. This is the aspect of Tolstoy that
convinced followers to sacrifice their own comforts and possessions to help others. This is the
part of his legacy that inspired Mahatma Gandhi, and can be traced all the way through Martin
Luther King to the gadflies and champions of human rights in the current day.

Perhaps we need to recalibrate the way we consider Tolstoy. At the time of his death, he was
better known as a sage and social thinker than as a storyteller. This changed largely because
the Soviet Union found this aspect of Tolstoy’s legacy to threatening to its own legitimacy, and
carefully managed the publication of his works and commentary on their contents to emphasize
the novelist over the activist. A century after the October Revolution this narrow view of Tolstoy is
so widely accepted that we need to struggle to regain the proper historical perspective with
which to view
Resurrection.

These considerations, I recognize, belong to the non-literary legacy of the Russian sage, but
changing hearts and minds is hardly less important or worthy of emulation than contributions to
the writer’s craft, even when you are a writer as grand as Leo Tolstoy. I do think this book
deserves its own resurrection, but not so much as a literary work—a perspective that creates
expectations this novel cannot fulfill—but rather as the map of an inspiring spiritual journey.


Ted Gioia is the author of eleven books, including the forthcoming Music: A Subversive History (Basic Books).


                                                                                                                                                 Publication date: April 1
8, 2019
The Forgotten Tolstoy Novel:
A Reappraisal of
Resurrection (1899)
fractious fiction
a website devoted to radical,
unconventional and experimental
fiction with a particular focus on the
rise of modernism and its aftermath.
When Tolstoy's final novel
Resurrection was published in
1899, it created a sensation and
outsold
War and Peace and Anna
Karenina
. It was as if “an angel
were to take to novel-writing,”
announced one critic in praise
of the book. Today the novel
is all but forgotten. What
happened to
Resurrection?
Essay by Ted Gioia
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Resurrection is a liminal
narrative, standing at the
boundary line between
fiction and philosophy,
realism and idealism, art
and advocacy.